A little less than a month ago, I bought a new MacBook. I’m sure it’s superior to my five-year-old G4 in hundreds of ways that I will never know or care enough to appreciate, but so far I’ve only managed to notice that it’s … not the same. Typing is more slippery–there’s none of that reassuring vestigial typewriterish resistance behind the barely raised letters and numbers. Both shift keys are intact, the screen isn’t smeary, and the whole apparatus isn’t encrusted with crumbs and cat hair. There’s a built-in camera so I can (entertain the horrifying prospect of engaging in) video chat with friends and loved ones. No one has yet photographed this computer to illustrate a magazine story about, like, “Bloggers: What’s Up with That?” When I use it to access the Internet, there are no effortful whirring sounds, no spinning wheels, no hesitations. I never have to force-quit half the programs I have open in order to make one of the others work. Really, it should be no problem at all–really, I should be eager–to transfer my music and documents and programs to my new computer so I can get the old one out of my life forever.
So why is my old computer still sitting on my bedside table (or, okay, more likely tucked into the covers at the foot of my bed), ready for the ritualistic little online tour of duty that–it pains me to admit–I compulsively make every day, first thing in the morning upon waking and last thing before sleeping? It’s a yellowed husk of its pristine-white former self, tragically hefty-looking next to its slimmer, silver younger sibling. Sure, we’ve been together through good times and bad–and the bad times were bad in a specifically computer-centric way. So much of my life had been spent looking at and touching that machine, and then so much of my life had been spent recording what had happened by looking at and touching that machine. The concrete evidence of those experiences can easily be exported to my new machine. After that happens, what remains will bear
as little resemblance to the object my fingers have spent the past few years caressing daily as a corpse bears to the living body it used to be. But even once its little mechanical soul has been reincarnated, the physical shell of my old laptop will remain a reminder of all the good things, and all the bad things, I used it to do.
My morbid attachment to my old machine confuses and shocks me, but it probably wouldn’t surprise MIT’s Sherry Turkle, who as a clinical psychologist and a professor of the social studies of science and technology has spent several decades studying and writing about the way mechanical objects construct and complete the self.
In two recent books, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With and The Inner History of Devices, Turkle has invited ethnographers, children, psychiatrists, and a great many “ordinary” people–a disproportionate number of whom seem to be academics–to contribute essays about the most important objects in their and their patients’, students’, and research subjects’ lives, and all the feelings and memories these objects evoke. The essays run the gamut from very analytical to very diaristic. A lot of them are just not very good: the academics, especially, often write about personal things as if they’re composing a college admission essay, and few of the other contributors seem to have understood that there are formal conventions of personal writing beyond “this happened, then that happened.”
But then there are moments that make the reader realize how valuable Turkle’s project is. In Devices, for example, we learn that some video-poker addicts wear double-layered pants so they don’t have to get up to urinate. They are sometimes surprised to find, after hours of play, that they’ve soiled or vomited on themselves–that’s how immersed they are in the microdecisions that the game requires. And they all use the same language of transport and transformation to describe their relationship with the machine that lulls them into this disembodied trance. “My body was there, outside the machine, but at the same time I was inside the machine, in the king and queen turning over, almost hypnotized into being that machine.” “You’re over there in the machine, like you’re walking around inside it, going around in the cards.” This is where anyone who has ever found it hard to get up from the computer–which by now must be everyone–cringes.